If this pandemic has highlighted anything food related to me, it is our country’s lack of seafood knowledge. This is a multi-faceted issue that can be attributed to our being such a large agrarian based country with more land based animal consumption than sea.
Seafood doesn’t need to be a confusing ingredient that you trust others to know about more than you. For that matter, you should always strive to know as much about the food you put into your body as the person providing it. You only get one body, make sure you are more educated than anyone when it comes to nourishing it. There are so many options available to us as consumers today ranging from small scale local fishers to quality farms that can still provide fresh, sustainably sourced seafood. The Food Marketing Institute last year found that many Americans feel unsure about how to purchase, cook, prepare or flavor seafood. Try some of their or my tips for how to shop and cook sustainably at for you, your friends, and loved ones.
Where we are now
Generally speaking, Americans do not consume large quantities per person of seafood, and the yearly report according to NOAA Fisheries’ most recent data, Americans eat an average of 16.1 pounds of seafood a year, a number that was expected to rise by five percent by 2022, in part thanks to the popularity of protein-focused diets like keto and paleo. Food & Wine magazine predicted that sustainable seafood would be one of the major food trends of 2020. Before COVID-19, more than 80 percent of the seafood eaten in the US was imported, and traditionally, 67% of that seafood is consumed outside of the home and was most likely not local nor responsibly caught, but the COVID-19 crisis has done a number on many food producers including the commercial seafood business and restaurant closures have left fishermen and purveyors without their main customer base and are struggling to stay in business.
There has been some innovative pivots with some smaller fisheries that have been able to adapt, shifting to direct-to-consumer sales, community-supported fishery models and online sales operations, and some restaurant suppliers have opened business to the consumer market providing us with more opportunities and responsibility to purchase sustainably than previously.
How to Choose Sustainable Fish
Finding responsibly caught, sustainable fish is not always easy and there are many resources out there that are conflicting. The fishermen using responsible practices catch what’s local and abundant, but that doesn’t always translate to popular, in-demand items like tuna or cod. However, supporting smaller suppliers and choosing local, sustainable fish helps create a marketplace for sustainable fish, which would otherwise be replaced by giant conglomerates. As I often stress, we can name dozens of types of coffee, olive oils and ice creams, but generally consume the three main species a year of Shrimp, Canned tuna, and Salmon
Ask your fishmonger or market where the seafood comes from and how it was produced. If they have a hard time answering this, then you have your answer. Transparency should never be an issue whether you are dealing with $2/# Mussels or $19/# Wild Salmon. Seafood guides like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide can help you make informed decisions. Consider inquiring: Where is this seafood from? Is the seafood farmed or wild? How was it caught?
Community-supported fisheries (CSFs), like Western Oregon’s Port Orford, North Carolina’s Walking Fish or Philadelphia’s Fishadelphia, are wonderful examples that allow consumers to buy directly from fishers, supplying customers with “shares” of local fish in exchange for an upfront payment that helps the fishery maintain operations. Think of it like a farm based CSA, or community supported agriculture.
These shares range in what types of fish they provide. Montauk, New York’s Dock to Dish operates on a catch-of-the-day system: members receive a weekly mix of fresh local fish such as golden tilefish, fluke, speared mahi-mahi, triggerfish and silver hake. Alaska’s Iliamna Fish Company, self-described as one of the country’s first member supported fisheries, focuses solely on salmon, bringing its shares to communities in Portland, Washington, Seattle, Austin and New York City, areas where members of the family-run CSF have settled outside of Alaska.
These CSFs allow customers and fishermen to directly engage in business, supporting the fishermen and providing the highest quality, most environmentally friendly fish to consumers. In the traditional grocery store model, there are things to consider such as the chain of custody in fisheries between a fisherman and a consumer where maybe 10, 20, 30 sets of hands that touch that chain whereby in every step the quality lowers and the price raises.
We tend to be creatures of habit in our purchasing. It is also a great time to be more open minded when the fisher does not have what we may want and offers a solution such as, “I’m sorry we don’t have that anymore, how about this instead?” You never know, you might discover your new favorite fish while supporting a grass roots business.
Along with CSFs, other options include purchasing from restaurant purveyors that have also begun selling to consumers, such as New York’s F. Rozzo & Sons and Brooklyn’s Pierless Fish (make sure to check for sustainable options here, as restaurant purveyors often provide a wide variety to their customers), or companies like Real Good Fish, a CSF-style delivery service run by a commercial fisherman out of Monterey Bay, California that quickly expanded operations in March and now delivers to seven nearby states. Maine’s Port Clyde Fresh Catch and Petersburg, Alaska’s Schoolhouse Fish Co. also offer limited memberships to their CSFs nationwide.
Tips for Cooking Seafood
Going with the sustainable option might mean choosing something you aren’t familiar with. In my operations, I make it a point to ask all purveyors from wine, cheese, meat through seafood to bring me whatever they have. This has many benefits. It teaches me about new products, it educates my clients on new products and , the fishermen aren’t weeding out the fish they normally would be throwing back in the ocean or unnecessarily catching fish that may not survive if put back in the sea. Generally speaking, by getting what’s coming out of the local waters, there are less middlemen involved, and you’re more likely to wind up with a better product in terms of freshness and flavor. No different than with produce.
Learn the Technique for the Fish
With seafood there are an endless variety and many people feel that the cooking varieties match that number. Fear not! Most species can be characterized by their activity levels, low, medium, and high, and their oil levels generally coincide with that level. For example, a low activity flat fish is considered low in oil, so find cooking techniques that add oil such as sautéing. Conversely a higher activity fish like a salmon is high in oil therefore it is less likely to dry out and could potentially benefit from a dry cooking technique such as grilling to help render out some of the fats while adding deeper flavor. When approaching a fish counter, I Iike to arm people with the general thought of, the lower the activity, the lower the oil, the lower the flavor and the lighter colored the flesh. The higher the activity, the higher the oil level, the stronger the flavor, and the darker the flesh. Think of chicken breasts [low activity] versus thighs and legs [high activity] and you have a useful analogy.
If you are truly stuck check online guides or specialized cookbooks such as my colleague Barton Seaver’s cookbook “The Joy of Seafood” to decide the best method. For the vast majority of fish out there, a sauté pan, a little oil, some salt and a willingness to learn are all that is needed. Seafood cooks very quickly and can dry out easily. I recommend to my students to get a thin probe thermometer when they are learning and to pull the fish when it hits an internal temperature of 135 degrees. Seafood is done at 14o, but remember, it will continue to rise due to “carryover cooking”
Some chefs like to use a thin metal cake tester to see if it’s done, for the filet or whole fish, if inserted and it has no resistance, that fish is done. Remove from the heat immediately.
The World Is Your Oyster
Its been said that, “It’s your civic duty to learn how to shuck oysters and cook seafood at home because thousands of jobs are counting on you.” The flavor of those locally sourced, freshly shucked oysters will be worth the extra work. Get oysters delivered overnight from another colleague of mine Jeremy Sewalls collaboration, Island Creek Oysters, then learn how to shuck oysters like a pro with these tips.
Use the Leftovers
One of the biggest issues that needs to be raised if we are to discuss sustainability is “plate waste”. Roughly 30% of the food cooked goes to waste in this country. That is devastating when you think about how many people cannot afford food to begin with and the animal gave its life for you, so please use it responsibly.
You may have noticed the oils in fish are very fragile and can oxidize over a short time, and reheating fish can amplify the compounds that some find overly “fishy.” If you have leftover fish, consider stretching the it by mixing it with other flavors and textures. Making fish tacos, fish cakes, chowder and chopped salad are all ways to learn new dishes and assure that the fish you bought stays sustainable through the end.